The business community focuses on managing uncertainty. That’s actually a bit of a canard. In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. That’s something our current systems can’t handle.
There’s a difference between the kind of problems that companies, institutions, and governments are able to solve and the ones that they need to solve. Most big organizations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They’re absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems – when you don’t know what you don’t know. Faced with ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.
Uncertainty is when you’ve defined the variable but don’t know its value. Like when you roll a die and you don’t know if it will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But ambiguity is when you’re not even sure what the variables are. You don’t know how many dice are even being rolled or how many sides they have or which dice actually count for anything. Businesses that focus on uncertainty actually delude themselves into thinking that they have a handle on things. Ah, ambiguity; it can be such a bitch.
Dev Patnaik, cited by Robert Safian in This Is Generation Flux: Meet The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business
We are in the Postnormal now, where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity have reached unparalleled heights. We are constantly in a strategy fog, unable to see very far ahead, to plan, or even think about problems and solutions. We live in a time defined by dilemmas: unsolvable situations that can only be coped with, balanced against.
Like a martial artist who knows she may be attacked at any time, by any opponent, with any weapon, the most productive approach is to practice, speculatively, but remain fluid in mind, and unfocused on any specific techniques.
This is why I counsel speculative design as a discipline. Instead of trying to imagine a future world, instead imagine an imaginary appliance of that future world, and its use by the denizens of that future. Then consider the implications of those interactions. That is the equivalent of a karate-do doing kata: we are sparring with the implications of our speculations.